Monday, February 29, 2016
The Battle of Algiers
The other Western powers were cash poor but tried in various ways to control or coerce past "partners" abroad. In north Africa, the rotating door of European imperialists fighting self-serving wars on the backs of their colonial subjects meant the arrival of an unexpected power vacuum. The same occurred in southeast Asia following Japanese withdrawal from French Indochina (see next week's Hearts & Minds). As part of its Anglo-American Loan of 1945, the U.S. shrewdly forced Britain to liquidate its overseas assets in the Commonwealth, thereby ensuring America's economic dominance for decades; England would be paying annually on that tab until 2006. As for France, they had no intention of letting go of Asian and African colonies and attempted to install puppet leaders loyal to western business interests.
It was imprisoned Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci who first coined the term "subaltern", which advocated that indigenous histories be told from the perspective of the colonized rather than the colonizers; and although The Battle of Algiers cannot be said to be truly subaltern due to Italian direction and financing, it nevertheless reflects an understanding of the mechanisms of postcolonial oppression and dominance, and their impact on human rights. The idea for the film originated with the Algerians. It was Salash Baazi, a former member of the FLN (the Algerian freedom fighters, by then victorious) that first approached Italian producers with the idea of filming the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, the FLN commander imprisoned by the French and later freed to become a long-standing member of the Algerian government. The first draft, done by an Italian screenwriter before Pontecorvo's involvement, reflected the angle still so prevalent today, that is, the narrative vis-a-vis the conscience-stricken imperialist soldier who uncovers the "truth" about his nation's actions. Thankfully the FLN rejected this idea as ridiculous, and a second draft was produced that provided a realistic approach. This persistence of the FLN--that their story be told with some modicum of fairness--is important to keep in mind since Pontecorvo sticks to this vision when coming on board, going so far as to cast several real-life participants, including Yacef himself as the FLN leader.
The film's significance today is multi-faceted. The Battle of Algiers has been used by both the oppressed and the oppressor, depending on the spin, and yet it still stands as a strong political statement, created at least in part by then-powerless voices attempting to eradicate imperialist systems of tyranny and control.